Putin’s march into Ukraine last spring did not change the world. It barely even changed Europe. The EU hesitated to label the aggression as an act of war. And, although the United States and the EU agreed to impose sanctions on Moscow, the real debate in Western capitals was not how to respond, but rather, how to express resolve while doing as little as possible.
And so, for Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Crimean adventure was an amazing success. It was bloodless and bold, the perfect cover for the fact that the Kremlin had lost Ukraine during Kiev’s Euromaidan protest. Putin’s domestic support skyrocketed and his international prestige outside the West grew. In countries as diverse as Argentina, Egypt, and Israel, Putin was increasingly viewed as a decisive leader facing down weak and risk-averse politicians. He even had good reasons to expect that the West’s interest in sanctioning his entourage would dissipate as soon as he stepped forward, according to Kremlin plans, as the indispensable peacemaker for the Ukrainian East.
And then the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was brought down by what was widely presumed to be a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile, killing all 298 people on board. That spelled the end of Putin’s good luck.
This week, the United States and Europe stepped up sanctions on Russia. Further, with world attention focused on eastern Ukraine, it has become increasingly difficult for Russia to support the separatists while denying that it is doing so. Indeed, in recent days, the media has whipped itself into a frenzy reporting on Moscow’s most recent actions in Ukraine -- activities that were not substantively different from those that it had been pursuing all summer.
Now, Russian troops might have to openly join the fray if Putin wants the rebel movement to survive. In Russia, Putin is already facing pressure to join the battle. Nationalists, including the ideologue Alexander Dugin, have started to criticize the president for encouraging pro-Russian separatists and then